Beauty IRL: Get Your Nails Done

Here’s an excellent Tuesday night ritual. Pour yourself a drink, turn on all the lights in your living room and sit down to do your nails. Take as much time as you need. Dig through that shoebox full of nail polish and nail files that have lost their grit, and find a color you’re really feeling. Essie’s Fifth Avenue? OPI’s Lincoln Park After Dark? Paint your nails, but take time. You know how at the salon, sometimes they leave that tiny stripe of polish on the side of your fingers? Doesn’t that drive you crazy? This time, you’re in charge, so do it right. Take time to sit down and not touch your phone or answer an email, because you can’t right now, and because you’re busy. This is an activity you can do with other people, but I find that it’s best done alone. Doing your nails is a menial task, one that requires concentration but not much thought. I find that I do some of my best thinking while taking the time to diligently push down my cuticles and use the good top coat. When all is said and done, I’ve accomplished something, as little as it may seem.

Of course, nothing beats a manicure from a seasoned professional either. As of late, I’ve been frequenting a nail salon a couple stops on the train from me. It’s a little hole in the wall that does killer nail art for a very reasonable price. I like to have my nails looking fresh at all times. If I’m going to get a manicure, I’m going to pay to have someone paint tiny designs on them, and feel good about the way that I’m spending my hard earned cash. My place is staffed by a nice Chinese family, and they do an excellent job on my nails. I always get gel, though one day my sister texted me and told me that there’s a new type of cancer found only in women who get gel manicures, because of the UV light in the drying stations. I now wear sunscreen on my hands before I stick them in the tiny tanning beds, and feel okay about it. We’re all going to die of something, anyway.

The women in this salon are chatty, like most are. I understand a little bit of Chinese, so I can catch bits and pieces of their conversation, although it’s in a dialect that I’m not familiar with. The women who are waiting for customers eat their lunches out of thermoses in the back room. Occasionally, the teenage boy with the crimped hair who spends most of his time slouched in an unused pedicure chair playing games on his cell phone will give a flawless manicure to a walk-in. The salon is fume-y, not very well-ventilated, and each manicure is soundtracked by NY1. The presence of Pat Kiernan’s dry sense of humor is a sign that you’ve found a good place to get your talons tamed, I always say. It’s just the way I want my nail salon to be.

There’s something about having my nails fresh that makes me feel pulled together, like I can take on the world. I like my hands. My fingers are shapely and a little chubby, and I have one very long hair on my left ring finger that I like to think is my body’s personal “fuck you” to engagement rings. My hands look better with a fresh coat of paint on my nails, especially when they’re long. I like ‘em on the pointier side of oval, where they click when I send texts or scroll through Instagram. I like how it looks when I point emphatically at my computer screen at work with a long, sharp nail. It imbues everything with a sense of gravitas, I’m not sure why. It makes me feel competent. It makes me feel like everything is going to be okay.

It hasn’t always been this way. When I lived in San Francisco, manicures were a treat because they weren’t that cheap, and good places were hard to find. I would go to a salon down the hill from my apartment sometimes. Once, I got the worst manicure of my life at Beauty Bar. It was free, with the purchase of a drink. I drank three drinks, and made out with an Irish carpenter named Niall in front of a crowd of horrified happy hour attendees. Having my nails done was less of a requirement and more of a treat — just something that I did, occasionally. In a city where dressing up meant putting on a nicer hoodie and sneakers that weren’t sport-specific, having bright red nails on a daily basis felt excessive.

Everything changed when I moved to New York, only because everyone was just slightly fancier. My regular San Francisco clothes felt wrong. I discovered the glory that is the cheap, serviceable manicure, and I was hooked. I can’t remember the last time that my nails have been bare, and I like it that way.

If you bite your nails, that’s fine. I used to, too, because there’s nothing more satisfying than gnawing on the edge of a fingernail and pulling it across in one straight piece. I know the feeling well. If you are an inveterate picker, that’s okay, too. I have a friend who tells me that she picks off her gel manicure in one solid, nail-shaped chip every time. The very thought makes my skin crawl, but, hey, different strokes. I am not saying that having your nails done — gleaming, shiny and Instagram-ready — makes you a better person than the dude on the train picking his cuticles while staring into space, but it helps. If you’re having a bad day, and you want to feel better, get your nails done.